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Art & Architecture Kate Taylor: Secret handshakes not enough to identify us as Canadians

Licence plates, hockey masks and beer cans – all part of Canada’s secret handshake, according to Douglas Coupland.

Rachel Topham/Vancouver Art Gallery

Americans have this joke about how Canadians pronounce the word "about." Ooot and abooot, they will say and then laugh heartily. I used to think I was the only one who didn't have a clue what they were talking about, but increasingly I have noticed other Canadians observing that isn't how anyone around here pronounces "about." It's our little private Canadian joke: Americans have this weird idea about how we pronounce a word, which we actually say just ab-owt the same way they do.

That's what Douglas Coupland might call a secret handshake, a bit of Canadian culture only recognizable to Canadians. The Vancouver visual artist, writer and definer of the zeitgeist has a whole section of his current Toronto exhibition entitled Secret Handshake. The show, which is called everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything and originated at the Vancouver Art Gallery last year, is split between the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art on Queen Street West, and the latter is where the Canadiana is on display.

Would anyone but a Canadian recognize the Saskatchewan licence plate, the Eaton's Christmas catalogue and Ookpik the Arctic owl? Those are some of the items on the shelves of Coupland's National Pantry. Other works take a more macabre approach to cataloguing national icons – there's a cabinet made of Trans-Canada Highway signage topped with a mould of Terry Fox's good leg – but the tone is usually humorous or at least ironic.

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Canadian culture, it seems, is the hockey game, the can of beer and a swatch of buffalo plaid. Are we only what we consume? Many of us will happily embrace the easily recognizable trappings of national identity – Terry Fox and Tim Hortons; baguettes and boulevards; flamenco and siestas – but sensible sorts don't place much social value on concrete definitions of people. The 20th century saw too much toxic nationalism for the 21st not to be wary of almost any form of politicized nationalism. The secret handshake among compatriots can quickly become a fist closed to outsiders.

Today, the global culture created by digital media and an open Internet is often credited with helping eclipse such nasty distinctions – we are all netizens now – and yet we still often seem to find our sense of belonging in a physical place. In an era in which some pundits, Coupland included, have suggested geography is all but dead, I was struck by the way the topic of transit completely dominated the last municipal election in Toronto. You can't get more stuck in sticky geography than when discussing how much it might cost to tunnel from Mount Dennis to Martin Grove. Apparently not everybody has the luxury of telecommuting.

Are we tar babies of urban geography or gazelles of digital technology? Probably a bit of both. While teaching an arts journalism course at Ryerson University a few years ago, I used to begin discussions of Canadian culture by asking students to think about identity. I am a woman, a writer, a mother, I'd say, but not mention any geographic or national identity to avoid prejudicing their answers. Who are you? There followed a flurry of labels covering gender, sexuality, age, family relationships, ethnicity, religion, professions, pastimes and even aesthetic choices, as well as a thorough discussion about minority versus majority identities. (A few students might put up a hand and offer that they were gay; nobody ever said, "I'm a heterosexual.")

There were always a few regional identities – one student identified herself as a proud Hamiltonian – but nobody ever said they were "Canadian." However, the students did often describe themselves as hyphenated Canadians, a Kenyan-Canadian, a Greek-Canadian, all people who seemed proud of overseas ancestry but also comfortable being here. To make that point, Coupland's National Pantry includes several packets of Asian instant noodles, too.

So what defines and then communicates that feeling of here? Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, many sociologists have been skeptical that media shape identity as strongly as do family structures and educational or professional institutions. Maybe watching a lot of American TV – something done by an awful lot of people who aren't American – is not how you create people who share American values. Do media really have the power to transmit identity? (You have participated in this debate in its crudest form if you have ever had an argument about whether pornography propagates sexism.)

Of course, audiences consume their media with great lashings of irony these days, taking few messages at face value, while our secret handshakes are mainly a source of amusement, part of that lighthearted conversation about how we differ from Americans that Canadians so love. The doughnuts and the beer are symptoms not causes, bits of flotsam tossed about on larger, unidentifiable currents. It often strikes me that the task is not to define Canadian culture, but to create it, to trust in the place and get on with the tunnelling.

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